Public Agenda

Slip-Sliding Away

An Anxious Public Talks about Today's Economy and the American Dream

Scott Bittle and Jon Rochkind, with Amber N. Ott

A Public Agenda study, done with funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation




Feb. 3, 2011 - - Despite signs of recovery from the Great Recession, 4 in 10 Americans find themselves living lives of constant economic struggle and worry, not just about paying their bills today, but about whether they'll keep a middle-class life in the long term, according to a new Public Agenda survey.

The survey, conducted with funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, shows how widespread the struggle remains to make ends meet in America. Four in 10 Americans (40 percent) say they're struggling "a lot" in the current economy [1], while fewer than 2 in 10 say they're not struggling at all. Another 4 in 10 fall somewhere in the middle.

The economically struggling are more likely to be concerned about long-term issues like paying for college and being able to retire than losing their job or paying immediate bills, the survey found. They're also more likely to gravitate toward solutions like making college affordable[2] and preserving Social Security and Medicare than tax cuts or reducing the federal deficit.

Those who are struggling a lot, and those who aren't, live in dramatically different worlds. Half of those who say they're struggling "a lot" (52 percent) say they've had trouble paying the rent or mortgage since 2008, compared with only 4 percent of the non-struggling. More than one-third have lost their job in the past two years, compared with 9 percent of the non-struggling.

Not surprisingly, the struggling are dramatically more worried about their financial well-being. Fully 77 percent of the struggling who are also parents say they're "very worried" about paying for their child's college education. In addition, nearly one-third of those who are employed (32 percent) say they're "very worried" about losing their job. Of the group overall, 61 percent are very worried about being able to retire, while 45 percent say they're very worried about paying back debt.

By contrast, 8 percent of those who aren't struggling are worried about retirement, and only 2 percent are worried about paying back debt or losing their job.


Who's Struggling and Who Isn't?

Overall, the survey shows how broadly the Great Recession[1] hit society. Three in ten Americans say they've had trouble paying the rent or mortgage since 2008 (31 percent) and nearly as many (27 percent) said they had to change their housing situation because of financial pressures. One in five, 22 percent, said they had lost their job since 2008.

But the impact is heavier on some than on others. Nearly half of those who say they're struggling "a lot" financially are more likely to make less than $30,000 a year (48 percent, compared with 16 percent of those who say they're not struggling at all). They're more likely to have children under 18 (37 percent to 21 percent). And, compared to the non-struggling, they're twice as likely to be black or Hispanic.

The people who aren't struggling, in addition to being higher-income and less likely to have children, are also more likely to have a college degree (46 percent, compared to 20 percent of the struggling).


Who's Struggling?

Those who are struggling "a lot" financially are more likely to: Struggling "a lot" Not struggling
Have had problems paying their mortgage or rent since 2008 52% 4%
Made under $30,000 in 2009 48% 16%
Be parents of children under 18 37% 21%
Have lost their job since 2008 34% 9%
Have a college degree (or higher) 20% 46%
Be Hispanic 17% 8%
Be African-American 15% 6%


What Would Help: Affordable College, Job Training, and a Safety Net for Older Americans

When it comes to what would be "very effective" in helping people become economically secure, the public puts its faith in higher education and job training, along with preserving programs like Social Security and Medicare. These are the top three solutions among both those who are struggling and those who aren't.

"Making higher education more affordable" led the list overall (63 percent) and among those who say they're struggling (65 percent). Preserving Social Security and Medicare was next at 58 percent (62 percent among the struggling) and expanding job-training programs came in third at 54 percent (56 percent for the struggling).

Neither cutting taxes for the middle class (48 percent) nor reducing the federal deficit (40 percent) get majority support, and other options rate even lower.[3]

Requiring employers to offer flexible scheduling, paid leave and sick time was only rated as "very effective" by 32 percent. In this case, there's a big divide between those who say they're struggling (42 percent say it would help "a lot") and those who don't (25 percent).

Despite the fact that many of the struggling people we surveyed said they had problems paying their rent, direct housing help turned out to be a relatively low priority for people overall. Only 29 percent of the total group say that subsidizing affordable housing would be "very effective." Even fewer support providing financial help to those who are "underwater," families and individuals who owe more on their mortgages than their houses are worth. Only 22 percent say that idea would be "very effective."


Views on What Might Help

How effective do you think the following proposals are when it comes to helping people who are struggling in the current? (Percent saying "very effective") Struggling "a lot"[4] Not struggling Total
Making higher education more affordable 65% 53% 63%
Preserving Social Security and Medicare 62% 56% 58%
Expanding job-training programs 56% 53% 54%
Cutting taxes for the middle class 53% 42% 48%
Reducing the federal deficit 40% 46% 40%
Requiring employers to offer more flexible scheduling, paid leave and sick time 42% 25% 32%
Subsidizing affordable housing 37% 21% 29%
Providing financial help to people who owe more on their mortgage than their house is worth 31% 10% 22%


One reason for the faith in education may be the public's perception of who's struggling the most in the current economy. Three-quarters of Americans say that people without college degrees are struggling a lot these days, compared to just half who say college graduates are struggling.


Who is Responsible for Helping, and Who Should be Helped?

The political debate often frames choices as between government help and individual effort, but the public seems to see these as equally important. Of the total sample, 55 percent said individuals themselves have "a lot" of responsibility for helping those who are struggling, but nearly as many (51 percent) said the government also has a lot of responsibility. Fewer saw faith-based and charitable organizations (42 percent) and businesses (36 percent) as bearing a lot of responsibility.

Overall, this held up regardless of whether people saw themselves as struggling or not, with one major difference; those who aren't struggling are far less likely to say that the government bears a lot of responsibility to help people (43 percent versus 57 percent of those who are struggling).

Nor has the Great Recession changed some attitudes about government assistance. Seven in 10 agree "poor people have become too dependent on government assistance programs," and there's no difference at all on this point between those who are struggling and those who aren't.

Yet there's also agreement on another point, with 7 in 10 also agreeing that the government should provide help to children in poverty "even if their parents are unwilling to work."


[1] The National Bureau of Economic Research says the recession officially lasted from December 2007 to June 2009. For current economic data, please see the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

[2] For more on the issue of college costs and access to higher education, see the Public Agenda reports Squeeze Play 2010: Continued Public Anxiety On Cost, Harsher Judgments On How Colleges Are Run; Changing The Conversation On Productivity: Strategies For Engaging Faculty And Institutional Leaders; With Their Whole Lives Ahead Of Them; and Can I Get A Little Advice Here.

[3] For more on the budget deficit and national debt, see our "The Buck Stops Where?" series of public opinion surveys and join the discussion on Our Fiscal Future, in which Public Agenda is a partner, on the web, Facebook and Twitter.

[4] Of the total sample, 40 percent of those surveyed say they are struggling a lot in today’s economy, 42 percent are struggling a little, and 17 percent say they are not struggling at all.



Survey Methodology

The survey is based on a nationally representative sample of 1,004 adults living in the continental United States. Telephone interviews were conducted by landline (670) and cell phone (334) from November 18 – 21, 2010. Results are weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies, and the margin of sampling error is ±3.5 percentage points.


About The Annie E. Casey Foundation

This research was funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. We thank them for their support but acknowledge that the findings and conclusions presented in this report are those of the author(s) alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Foundation.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation is a private charitable organization dedicated to helping build better futures for disadvantaged children in the United States. It was established in 1948 by Jim Casey, one of the founders of UPS, and his siblings, who named the Foundation in honor of their mother.

The primary mission of the Foundation is to foster public policies, human-service reforms and community supports that more effectively meet the needs of today’s vulnerable children and families. In pursuit of this goal, the Foundation makes grants that help states, cities and neighborhoods fashion more innovative, cost-effective responses to these needs.

The foundation is on the web at http://www.aecf.org and is also on Facebook and Twitter.



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Slip Sliding Away Survey Results

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Despite signs of recovery from the "Great Recession," significant numbers of Americans find themselves living lives of economic struggle, and worry about whether they'll keep a middle-class life in the long term.

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